Free Agent Shopping: Starting Pitchers


When either the Cardinals or Red Sox hoist the World Series trophy high overhead and another season comes to a close, the MLB Free Agent period will officially begin. Jim Crane has already gone on record saying the Astros will be spending some money this winter. I’m not quite ready to buy into the “50 to 60 million dollar payroll” figure. But, I am hoping the Astros try to do something to address their many weaknesses.

There has been talk of adding multiple bullpen arms, an outfield bat, and perhaps even a starting pitcher or two. Let’s take a look at what the market has to offer this winter, beginning with the starting pitchers.

The recent signing of Tim Lincecum to a 2-year $35 million deal with San Francisco helps to give us an idea of what market values might be. Although I believe the Giants overpaid for “The Freak”, Jeff Zimmerman at MLB Trade Rumors put together a model that suggests otherwise. One thing we can all agree on — pitching isn’t going to be cheap this offseason.

What can the Astros afford? Let’s start with the one guy who’s price tag (in my opinion) is definitely going to be too high. Japanese import Masahiro Tanaka is up for grabs to the highest bidder… literally. The MLB team that submits the highest bid to Tanaka’s team, the Rakuten Eagles, will win the right to negotiate with the 24-year old sensation. Rumor has it that the Yankees are hot for Tanaka and might be willing to bid more than $60 million for the negotiation rights. Add in another $60 or 70 million for five years and I’m experiencing sticker shock. But he’s probably going to be worth it. Some scouts say Tanaka, who went 24-0 this season, may be better than Yu Darvish. Speaking of Yu, expect the Rangers to make a sizable bid for Tanaka as well. Even if they want him, I just don’t see the Astros being able to win this bidding war.

Ubaldo Jimenez (Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports)

Back stateside, I think Ervin Santana is likely to land a long term deal. The same can be said for Matt Garza, who could re-sign with the Rangers. That means these two pitchers are also, in all likelihood, out of the Astros price range. Another hurler that could fit into that category is Ubaldo Jimenez. But, unlike Santana and Garza, the price tag on Jimenez may not include a draft pick.

The Cleveland Indians are still weighing their options, regarding Jimenez. Cleveland is likely to make the $14 million qualifying offer to the 29-year old but, chances are, Ubaldo will turn it down and see what he can get on the open market. Once one of the hardest throwers in the league, Jimenez started the All-Star game and finished third in N.L. Cy Young balloting in 2010. A year later he struggled so mightily that the Rockies sent him to Cleveland for a quartet of prospects at the trade deadline.

Jimenez experienced a drop in velocity in each of the next three seasons and his struggles continued. That is, until last year — especially in the second half of the season. No longer able to blow hitters away the way he used to, Jimenez  finally learned how to pitch. The key seemed to be an increase in the use of his slider. Jimenez threw his slider 24% of the time last season as opposed to his previous high of 15%. Jimenez finished the 2013 campaign with a 3.30 ERA and had the highest strikeout rate of his career. He went 4-0 in September and was instrumental in helping the Tribe clinch a wildcard spot.

Can Jimenez duplicate the success he enjoyed in 2013? Maybe. But, regardless of whether or not he can, he will get paid this offseason. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him get a 3 or 4 year deal worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $15 million per year. Are the Astros willing to go that high for Jimenez? Probably not. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Another interesting veteran starter on the market is 33-year old Dan Haren. The 6′ 5″, 215 pound right-hander signed a 1-year, $13 million contract with the Washington Nationals prior to last season and, after a less than stellar campaign with the Nats, could prove to be a bargain if he settles for a similar deal this year. Having briefly considered retiring, Haren seems set on pitching again in 2014.

After logging at least 215 innings for seven straight seasons, Haren has thrown fewer than 180 in each of the last two years. Still, he is a dependable starter with good command. However, the homerun ball could be a bit of a problem. Haren has established new career highs in HR% in each of the past two seasons. On the bright side, Haren finished strong in 2013. After returning from the D.L. on July 8, he posted a 3.09 ERA in 87 & 2/3 innings. Haren could be worth a flier for the Astros at around $10 million plus incentives. But in this market — that may not be enough.

Josh Johnson (Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Another veteran who could be found in the bargain bin is Toronto’s Josh Johnson. In an injury plagued 2013 season, his first with the Blue Jays, Johnson went 2-8 with a 6.20 ERA and a 1.66 WHIP. He was limited to only 16 starts due to triceps and forearm issues. Johnson also had surgery to remove bone chips from his pitching elbow at the conclusion of the season.

Given all of his problems, it seems doubtful that Alex Anthopoulos and the Jays will extend the $14 million qualifying offer to Johnson. The big right-hander, who turns 30 in January, is one of the most dominant pitchers in the league when he is healthy. The problem is — he just can’t seem to stay off the disabled list. Johnson would appear to be a prime candidate for an incentive laden 1-year contract that would allow him to attempt to boost his value before re-entering the Free Agent market in 2015. This is a guy I think the Astros can afford. But, given the health issues, is a bit risky. Even so, I would be willing to offer him a base of $6 or 7 million and hope for the best.

I think either Jimenez, Haren, or Johnson could give the Astros rotation a much needed boost. Of course there are several other options out there — none of which I find even mildly exciting. In what looks to be a player’s market, I’d hate to see the Astros overpay for the likes of a Phil Hughes, Scott Kazmir, or Paul Maholm.